BABA YAGA LAID AN EGG by Dubravka Ugresic
“You donâ€™t see them at first. Then suddenly a random detail snags your attention like a stray mouse: an old ladyâ€™s handbag, a stocking slipping down a leg, bunching up on a bulging ankle, crocheted gloves on the hands, a little old-fashioned hat perched on the head, sparse grey hair with a blue sheen.”
Review by Poornima Apte (FEB 3, 2010)
Baba Yaga is a star player in Eastern European myths. The Russian version involves a crackly old witch ready to spark terror in childrenâ€™s hearts. Croatian author Dubravka Ugresic, in her wonderful book, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, lays out modern-day interpretations of this age-old myth.
These â€świtches,â€ť Ugresic tells us, are all around usâ€”old women limbs curling from arthritis, shuffling along, waiting, pondering the end of their lives. The book is laid out in three sectionsâ€”each a different take on the myth.
The first one touchingly details the relationship between an old woman and her daughter (the narrator). Living in exile in Zagreb, the old lady spends each of her days with fixed routinesâ€”a treat at the local pastry shop, a glance at the newspaper, dusting perhaps. Ugresic does such a brilliant job detailing this womanâ€™s every action and gesture as she waits slowly for death to come, that the book is worth reading for this alone. â€śShe uttered her truisms with special weight,â€ť the narrator writes of her mother, â€śTruisms gave her the feeling, I suppose, that everything was fine, that the world was precisely where it should be, that she was in control and had the power to decide.â€ť
Plagued by dementia partly from old age and partly from cancer that has spread to the brain and is barely contained, her one regret is not being able to see the city of her youth ever again. â€śShe had snapped shut almost all of her emotional files. One of them was slightly open: it was Varna, the city of her childhood and youth.â€ť Since she is not capable of travel, Mom sets the daughter off to find and record the city of her youth.
Some background information about the author would be relevant here. Dubravka Ugresic now lives in Amsterdam with a Dutch passport. When war broke out in Croatia in the early 90â€™s she took a stand against the nationalistic government for which she was forced out of the country as part of a “witch hunt.” An exile herself, you can detect the emotional weight of Ugresicâ€™s own experiences here. In the story, when the narrator returns to her mother with pictures of her hometown now irrevocably changed, the mother can no longer recognize it. Itâ€™s a haunting and moving portrait not just of old age, but also of exileâ€™s deep loneliness.
The second interpretation looks at three old womenâ€”Beba, Pupa and Kuklaâ€”who visit a newly founded spa retreat as part of their joint vacation together. The friends kick it up and have a good time even as the story individually zooms in on each womanâ€™s life regrets.
To each of these women, love doesnâ€™t (or hasnâ€™t) come easy. The “egg” in the title too is based on a Russian folktale and it stands for loveâ€”one that is nearly inaccessible. â€śLove is on the distant shore of a wide sea,â€ť goes the legend. â€śA large oak tree stands there, and in the tree there is a box, in the box a rabbit, in the rabbit a duck, and in the duck an egg. And the egg in order to get the emotional mechanism going, had to be eaten.â€ť
So even if “Baba Yaga” has laid an egg, will it get eaten and by whom? In here Ugresic also does a wonderful job of showing up the beauty industry and all its attempts at keeping old age at bay.
The final interpretation is an essay laid out by a folklorist, Aba Bagay, who offers the general discourse and ideas behind the Baba Yaga myth. In a final fantastic touch, she slowly morphs into that crackling, bird-like creature a part of â€śHags International.â€ť
It is important to note here that writing about old age and women is not easy. This is the sort of material that can easily slip into gushy sentimentality. But Ugresic is a far better writer than that. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is funny, touching and even illuminatingâ€”but never, ever sappy. Itâ€™s going on my list for top reads for the year. Her interpretations of the original myth are searing and inventive. â€śThey shuffle around the world like armies of elderly angels,â€ť Ugresic writes of these sweet old ladies. In other words, Baba Yaga is only as scary (or as endearing) as the old ladies we all know. That ought to reassure the young ones, shouldnâ€™t it?
In her wild, fun and imaginative book, Dubravka Ugresic turns the myth of Baba Yaga on its head. While doing so, she validates what Bette Davis once said (and what one of Ugresicâ€™s characters also acknowledges): â€śOld age is no place for sissies.â€ť
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 6 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Canongate U.S.; Tra edition (February 2, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Dubravka Ugresic|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
And of another interesting book:
- In the Jaws of Life and Other Stories (1992)
- Fording the Stream of Consciousness (1993)
- The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1998)
- Lend Me Your Character (2004)
- The Ministry of Pain (2005)
- Nobody’s Home (2007)
- Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (2009)
- Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream (1994)
- The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays (1998)
- Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia (2003)
- Karaoke Culture (2011)
- Europe in Sepia (February 2014)
February 3, 2010
Â· Judi Clark Â· No Comments
Tags: Aging, Canongate, Croatia, Dubravka Ugresic, Myth Â· Posted in: Allegory/Fable, Croatia, End-of-Life, James Tiptree Winner, Literary, Russia, Translated, World Lit